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Health Update

Urban alliance works to change school food’s image

Districts want to leverage considerable spending power to drive down food costs, increase quality

A first-of-its-kind coalition of five of the nation’s largest districts is working to improve the reputation and quality of school food. The Urban School Food Alliance celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer, and includes districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas, and Orlando.

Despite the new federal regulations for healthier lunch options, too many Americans believe that schools only serve inexpensive, low-quality meals, says David Binkle, director of food services in Los Angeles USD. “People have the perception that we’re buying the cheapest garbage there is, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” Binkle says.

Members of the Urban School Food Alliance want to leverage their considerable spending power to drive down the costs of food and increase quality in cafeterias, and make school lunch service more environmentally friendly. They are slowly meeting these goals after the first year, Binkle says.

In total, the alliance bought more than $530 million in food and supplies last year, and produces 2.6 million meals every school day. The group of urban districts is looking into becoming a nonprofit organization, and eventually adding more members.

Each district in the coalition has a project: For example, Dallas wants to eliminate the spork because it is a lower quality utensil than a fork or spoon, Binkle says. New York, meanwhile, is trying to lower prices on organic, free-range chicken so it can stop serving chopped non-organic nuggets, and Miami is replacing throwaway polystyrene trays with reusable plates. “The school lunch tray essentially looks the same as what prisoners get,” Binkle says.

“You don’t use a tray at home or at a restaurant. Just that simple change has an image perception change to it, and is better for the environment.”

The group has monthly conference calls to discuss menu options that will get students excited about healthier foods. “We have an obligation to teach children about nutrition and health, so this generation can teach the next,” Binkle says.